Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Home Truths? See me, please

A language thousands of years old. A language generating arguments
that seem to go on for a thousand years.
It's time to take those arguments to school....
(Pic : BBC Wales)
Earlier this month, an article from "writer, editor and teacher" Evan Harris appeared on the Open Democracy website, flagged up by Inside Out and National Left. Titled "Home Truths", it was an all too familiar discussion about the Welsh language, Welsh language policy and Welsh medium education.

Let's take a closer look, shall we?

His own fluency

"I tried to say ‘I'm in my flat, frying vegetables’ but couldn’t think of the word for vegetables, or flat and the verb ‘to fry’....All my education from age 3 to 16 was in Welsh – I scored top marks in Welsh language and literature exams – but I can no longer speak it."
This strongly implies he had a Welsh-medium (WM) education, though it's never explicitly stated. In the latest WJEC guidelines for GCSE Welsh First Language, "top marks" requires (pdf p17) :
  • Rich and fluent language.
  • Strong grasp of grammar and syntax.
  • Clear and refined self-expression.
  • Appropriate phraseology for the task and audience.
  • Confident use of a wide vocabulary.
Someone going through WM education from 3-16 will have been taught many – not necessarily all - subjects through the medium of Welsh. That should be enough to develop fluency and retain knowledge of basic nouns and verbs – especially someone getting "top marks".

That's not to dismiss it. Losing a language does happen and it's known as language attrition. However, it's dependent on a combination of proficiency, frequency of use and motivation to retain it.

Therefore, if you want to retain a second language and you're competent at using it (or immersed in it like WM education, Murtagh 2004), odds are you probably will retain it.

The Beaufort-Welsh Government Survey

"I learned my atrophied tongue is not alone; I am part of a trend. A report published by the Welsh Assembly shows only 50% of Welsh speakers aged 16-24 consider themselves fluent. Only a third use it socially."
The report - commissioned on behalf of the Welsh Government, BBC Wales and S4C – found 51% of those 16-24 y.o. Welsh-speakers questioned said they spoke Welsh fluently, with 74% saying they were either fluent or "can speak a fair amount of Welsh" (p21).

There were no differences in older age groups, with figures ranging around the 65% mark for fluency and 80%+ for both fluency and "speak a fair amount". In fact, fluency levels were said to be slightly higher compared to a similar survey from 2005 (p22).

The reasons given for the discrepancy in fluency between young and old include:
  • 16-24s were less likely to say they spoke Welsh at home as a child, pointing towards the  expansion of WM education amongst English-speaking households.
  • Welsh-speakers are just as likely to carry out activities in English as they are in Welsh, depending on the activity. This points to both "functional bilingualism" and a lack of relevant Welsh-medium activities.
  • Younger Welsh-speakers were much more likely to use Welsh via things like Twitter (64% of them did) or Facebook (35%). They're also equally less likely to use traditional media.
  • Welsh-speakers in north and Mid & West Wales were significantly more likely (61-65%) to use Welsh socially that those in the south east (19%). Older people are also more likely to use Welsh at work (including a surprising 51% of 25-29s).
  • The number of Welsh-speaking households where only Welsh is spoken ranges from between 22-37% depending on where you are in the country, while significantly more homes use both Welsh and English.
  • 84% of respondents welcomed the opportunity to "do more in Welsh", with the least fluent more enthusiastic (92%) and 16-24s even more so (95%).
  • Only 24% of 16-24s said they were comfortable using Welsh instead of English, compared to 43% of over 60s.
Across all age groups, only 22-28% of respondents believed Welsh language culture "seemed irrelevant at times", but 16-24s were more likely to say yes. That's outnumbered by those who want to do more in Welsh.

So, the nub of the reason behind a lack of perceived fluency are lack of confidence and lack of opportunities to use Welsh - not that they don't want to use it. Compounding the survey's findings, there's evidence that lack of confidence means people underestimate their proficiency in a language (MacIntyre, Noels, Clement 1997).

There's clear enthusiasm there, but disappointment at the lack of opportunities to use Welsh socially. That's what concerned the Welsh Government in their own words, and no doubts impacts people's perceptions of their own fluency in the long run, as well as perceptions of the language's relevance in daily life.

Attitudes towards the Welsh language

One of Evan's claims that does stand up is that Welsh-speaking
ability is linked to a greater sense of identity and belonging.
However, when it comes to policy he gets it spectacularly wrong.
(Pic : Click on Wales)
From the same report, respondents felt the Welsh language:
  • Enhances a sense of personal identity and a sense of achievement at being able to speak Welsh.
  • Would improve their children's employment prospects and secure the Welsh language's survival.
  • Was necessary in areas where Welsh was heard on the street, and saw the language as "something to share" with incomers. It ties people to a community giving them a sense of belonging.
  • Enhances links with Welsh arts and culture.
I'm in no doubt that Welsh-speakers are more likely to turnout and support further powers for the National Assembly – as in the 2011 referendum (Aberystwyth University study) - and perhaps more likely to support independence. A correlation is noticeable in other surveys, but never been that significant to make a difference.

The Swansea University presentation he links to (ppt), and more importantly the paper, concludes that with regard Welsh language policy "the intrinsic ideology predominates" (Welsh is valued as an independent entity) rather than what Evan claims throughout are instrumental concerns (Welsh is used as a means to another, hinted nationalist, end).

The Welsh language is, as the author says, perhaps "stoked by aspirations to stronger cultural, historical and personal identity" but that's amongst Welsh-speakers alone, and there's no evidence of a negative impact on non-Welsh speakers in terms of their own identity, or it being dependent on social class.

In fact, the Swansea University study dismisses the idea that Welsh language policy (rather than the language itself) is motivated by identity.

It even says that although there may be negative fall-out from pursing intrinsic policies - as with any form of positive discrimination to protect minority groups - any "discriminatory effect" on non-Welsh speakers is minimal, perhaps amounting to as little as 1% in a scenario relating to charity funding - coming from Welsh Government officials themselves!

The "Welsh Class"

Are wires crossed as to why  "the crachach" are
socio-economically advantaged?
(Pic : peterfinch.co.uk)
As he puts it (via Ralph Fevre et al) :
"....a small middle-class status group, socio-economically advantaged and is concerned with the honour and prestige of its language and culture. It is the community at the heart of Welsh nationalism, and has succeeded in normalising the aspiration to belong to an amorphous national community whilst remaining aloof as the arbiter of its high culture.
"....Welsh language education does not, and perhaps will not, give students access to the benefits the Welsh Class enjoys."
In the local vernacular they're known as "the crachach" or "The Taffia". I define the term as meaning "well-connected snobs" regardless of whether they're English-speaking or Welsh-speaking. Other people have their own definitions.

They exist in folk memory, but are they in an advantaged/privileged position?
What defines a "socio-economic advantaged class"? From the top of my head (and not a conclusive list) :
  • Access to better public services than the majority of the population enjoy.
  • Over-representation in public life, top universities, land ownership and at the top of business.
  • Appointment to high office by patronage, connections and inheritance.
  • Social conditioning that they be treated not only with respect, but reverence.
  • Avoiding unpleasant social obligations (like military service, fines, paying certain taxes).

It's hard to deny it happens in Wales. However, membership of an advantaged class is dependent on exclusive "means of entry" that are beyond the reach of an ordinary citizen, usually coming down to blood, connections or capital.

The only perceived advantage a member of a "Welsh Class"  has - on the same terms he describes it as being - compared to the stereotyped British upper middle class is an ability to speak Welsh, which isn't in itself an exclusive means of entry as absolutely anyone can acquire it.

Any "Welsh Class" probably exists for the same reasons as the British upper middle class – blood, connections and capital. Speaking Welsh or being cultured wouldn't be a means of entry into this "elite" by itself, you need those other things.
They also need palpable advantage. The "benefits of the Welsh Class" haven't been outlined. What are they? What do they actually get from it?

It resembles a furtive fallacy, tying seemingly related factors together (such as the existence of a Welsh-speaking upper middle class, and that Welsh-speakers might be more predispositioned to support further devolution) as evidence that supports an exaggerated non sequitur (a closed-off, high-society elite devoted to the cause of Welsh nationalism).

The author contradicts their claims by suggesting throughout there are few advantages/incentives to being bilingual, despite the existence of an elite who would need to keep their numbers and influence up in order to maintain said advantage.

A claim that expansion of WM education is linked to a nationalist plot is a political point and they have a right to say it, but it's a bit McCarthyite if there's little evidence of a significant and substantial advantage over non-Welsh speakers of the same social status.

An advantaged class that can't even use their "funny handshake" – an ability to speak Welsh - to buy their groceries doesn't sound too advantaged either.

The track record of Welsh medium education

Criticism of stagnant Welsh education standards holds up, I don't dispute it. I've touched on it enough down the years, as have others.

The thrust of the argument here though is a claim that WM schools perform no better than EM schools when taking into account deprivation – measured as pupils entitled to free school meals.

Borrowing Syniadau's example from last year and on the same basis (I hope he doesn't mind), here are the latest performance figures bench marked by medium and free school meals from 2011-12. The figures for 2012-13 are due for release on September 26

Performance by medium and free school meal entitlement 2011-12
(Click to enlarge)

Red indicates the poorer of the two performances, green the better, white the same.

Compared to last year, EM schools where 15-20% of pupils are entitled to free school meals outperformed WM schools, which is good news because they've closed the gap and children are receiving a better education because of that. WM schools have seen improvements at the 10-15% level.

Overall, as you'll see in the right-hand column, WM schools still out-perform EM schools across the board. WM pupils are, on average, more likely to get a collection of higher grade GCSEs - as evidenced by the higher average wider points score - and more likely to get at least 5 A*-Cs at GCSE, including English or Welsh, Maths & Science (core subject indicator).

This is likely due to a lack of large numbers of free school meal pupils, who according to the ONS/Welsh Government (pdf) had a 71 point average wider points score handicap in 2012 compared to other pupils, while EM pupils had a 60 point handicap compared to WM pupils.

They're heavily-clustered in former coalfield local authorities and inner-cities (based on where the majority of deprived WIMD areas are), where WM education has never gained a foothold and where there are higher numbers of low income households entitled to free school meals – numbers which significantly outstrip poor areas of Y Fro.

One way you can make a like-for-like comparison is by using the ONS method to determine the figures in the right hand column, having eliminating EM pupils in the top two free school meal bands.

You do that by working out the number of EM pupils in each of the first three bands who met the respective thresholds (or a cumulative points total), dividing it by the total number of pupils in the first three columns, rounding it to the nearest whole number and comparing them to the WM figures.

Relative performance by medium, adjusted to take FSM
entitlement into account 2011-12
(Click to enlarge)
When you do, performances of EM and WM schools are near enough identical, with WM schools maintaining the slimmest of advantages. However, average and capped points scores still remain higher in WM schools.

Do WM schools perform better than EM schools, even when taking into account deprivation? - Yes.

Next, there's the claim the Welsh language survives :
"....because of coercion and punishment in schools, verbal aggression, humiliation, sanctions....For some in my school, speaking English was a defiant act, an assertion of an identity independent of prescribed nationalism; for most it was just more functional."
Many children and teenagers are obstreperous, attention-seeking, like to establish their individualism and don't do as their told - regardless of the language they're being taught in. They usually grow out of it by their mid-20s.

I imagine using Welsh whenever possible in a Welsh medium school will be high up the list of rules. Breaking school rules - regardless of medium - results in shouty teachers and punishments.

Welsh-speaking ability and employment

In the private sector, Welsh-speaking requirements seems mostly dependent
on the seniority of the post in addition to possessing other underlying
skills and experience.
(Pic : learnwelshinmidwales.org)
The paper the author cites says bilinguals earn on average between 9-11% more per hour (p8). It's unclear if that means they're underpaid relative to their other skills, but the paper suggests this was because of, "employers taking advantage of the relative immobility of bilingual workers, due to the value of living where the minority language can be spoken." So, Welsh is useful if you live and work in Wales. Glad that's cleared up.

It's suggested that it could be down to discrimination against Welsh-speakers in an Anglophone working environment as much as bilingualism not translating into "productive skills". (p18) Though there's no firm evidence of either.

According to a Welsh language skills report from 2005, only 9% of private companies reported a specific requirement for Welsh-speakers, with the highest percentage in the media (18%) and the lowest in the service sector (5%).

Despite this, 29% of businesses said customers preferred being offered the choice of being served in either language. A separate survey hints demand could be higher. Whether private companies offer Welsh language services or not is down to them unless required by law (i.e utilities companies).

Employers who had higher Welsh-speaking requirements either worked entirely in Welsh, mostly in Welsh or in both equally. This suggests Welsh-speaking ability is advantageous – possibly essential - in parts of Wales where business might be routinely conducted in Welsh.

In terms of the sorts of private sector jobs (Table 6), professional and managerial roles (Categories A & B) required the highest levels of Welsh-speaking ability compared to routine jobs (Category D).

This suggests having knowledge of Welsh is potentially financially advantageous, as it seems those jobs requiring a greater ability to speak Welsh generally pay higher salaries.

Where Welsh speakers were employed in 2012 by occupation.
(Click to enlarge)

More recent figures from 2012 (p86-87) also show Welsh-speaking skills spike amongst skilled trades, personal services and professionals. So it hasn't changed much in all that time and seems pretty broad in terms of social class. Skilled trades and personal services aren't normally considered jobs for the socio-economic "elite".

Suggesting (for professionals) that it's down to WM education is an easy assumption, but perhaps a lazy one. If WM education disappeared overnight, the children won't. They'll still need schools and they'll still need teachers. So the number of Welsh-speaking teachers, probably the number of teachers overall, would near enough remain the same.

The paper (p9) suggests employment is rarely based on Welsh-speaking ability alone, but because "bilinguals have, on average, higher levels of those characteristics that are rewarded in the labour market, including education and experience."

It's said, for example, that 52% of those who understand spoken Welsh have a degree compared to 37% of monolinguals (p16). However, when it comes to speaking, reading and writing Welsh, that advantage disappears, presumably as there are fewer of them in the first place.

The author says Welsh-speakers are advantaged due to government initiatives and the existence of a "Welsh Class", yet (paradoxically) simultaneously disadvantaged by possessing a skill that "isn't beneficial" - which is definitely not the case if such roles are created by statute (as he says) and Welsh-speaking skills are seen as desirable for certain high-paying jobs.

Setting the Welsh language up to fail either way is a self-refuting idea.

Evidence of better employability and earning potential amongst Welsh-speakers in highly-skilled, relatively high-paying jobs in both public and private sectors is there.

The benefits of bilingualism

As we increasingly understand how the brain works, the belief
that bilingualism inhibits learning (regardless of language) has become
outdated and discredited. The consensus now points towards the opposite.
(Pic : Dana Foundation)
A small selection of possible positive effects of bilingualism:
I don't think it implies – as the author did – that "bilingualism makes children more intelligent", but there are clear benefits.

His claim that bilingualism limits vocabularies is nonsense. Also, his claim that there are few benefits for sequential ("taught") over simultaneous ("natural/spoken at home") bilinguals is partially discreditable.

Experiments have shown that both types of bilinguals outperform monoglots in certain tasks. Though between the two groups of bilinguals, simultaneous bilinguals will significantly outperform sequentials. Bilingualism takes gold and silver, and you have to factor in all the other advantages to bilingualism as well.

Next, it's the question of whether being bilingual makes it easier to learn another language. Yes it does, and there've been several studies showing such :

Take up of Modern Foreign Languages (MFL) in WM schools
Though declines in the numbers of modern foreign language qualifications
are worrying, the evidence points to WM schools
"pulling their relative weight"
  in terms of take-up.
(Pic : scholastic.co.uk)
The issue of language qualifications in Wales is relevant. Unfortunately, the author poisons the well by suggesting there was a lack of "sufficient provision".

MFLs are a statutory requirement in both EM & WM secondary schools as part of the National Curriculum's Key Stage 3 (p25) and are therefore compulsory for Years 7-9.

At GCSE level (Key Stage 4) in 2011-12 there were almost as many WM entries for French as there were for physics (Table 2.7), and WM entries made up between 11-14% of all MFL GCSE entries.

That matches, even slightly exceeds, Welsh-medium's share of GCSEs sat overall (11% - also Table 2.7) - not counting exams sat exclusively in either Welsh or English (like Welsh First Language & English Literature).

You can therefore say that in 2011-12 WM schools were "pulling their weight" in terms of foreign language qualifications, though things could always be better.

The A*-C pass rate for MFLs like German (77%), French (73%) and Spanish (76%) appears to be good across the board (Table 2.5a). Pupils are also more likely on average to get a good GCSE mark through attending a WM school (Table 2.6).

Whether pupils take up MFL beyond the age of 14 is a matter for individuals, and he's correct to say – based on declines in entries - that any "metalinguistic ability is being squandered".

I'm on record as supporting a compulsory second (or third) language at GCSE. That shouldn't need to be Welsh in EM schools, as - to be frank - some aspects of teaching Welsh as a second language in EM secondaries are a joke, in particular the GCSE Short Course.

Must try harder!

On the surface, Evan's article was a well-reasoned, thought-provoking piece.
Underneath however....
Those who oppose the Welsh language and/or WM education have been waiting for a "smoking gun" to back up their arguments since the Blue Books fell out of favour.

The fact they're still struggling to produce one while WM education continues to expand hints that their arguments – in terms of education at least - are being comprehensively defeated, while wider issues surrounding the Welsh language's future remain in flux.

Compared to some things written about language issues down the years, this was a bit more sophisticated. It's a fair attempt to make the arguments against WM education and Welsh language policy more credible by introducing academic, class consciousness and sociological slants to it. This is - for now - as good as it gets.

Welsh is - if you take the article at face value - "being taken away from salt of the earth folk by the crachach". It's almost a romantically tragic lament at the decline of Welsh minus the grief.

Dismissing the opening paragraph – which really should've set people's alarm bells ringing - it was entertaining enough, with valid points made about the state of education and the Welsh language's role in public life.

Delve a little deeper though and there's not much there. It stumbles into tired arguments, appearing to be a thinly-veiled rant at a "Welsh Class" and nationalists in general, but – to their credit – avoiding clichéd references to Pontcanna and Cymdeithas yr Iaith.

If the author hadn't said they were a teacher, this would've been solid C-grade material. Considering this was written by someone who's supposedly trying to instill concepts like objectivity and reasoning in our children, they flunked it.


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